The typical article about James Farl Powers (1917–1999) asks why he is so little remembered. This may at first seem counterintuitive. Powers was a recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants, resident at the celebrated Yaddo writers’ colony, friends with Robert “Cal” Lowell, admired by Evelyn Waugh and Sean O’Faolain. He wrote perfectly crafted short stories, and in 1963 won the National Book Award for his masterpiece (and first novel), Morte D’Urban. And yet Powers always hovers just beyond the first- and second-class ranks of American novelists.

Powers’s universe was the Catholic life in what he called “big Missal country.” This was the German and Irish Catholicism of places like Minnesota—where Powers lived for a time and whose religious life impressed him deeply—and Illinois—where he was born to a devoutly Catholic family....